Retrenchment, Day 14

I generally dislike and mistrust arguments suggesting that academia needs to be "more like business". To a great extent I suspect that comes from spending 20 years in business, including a bit of time in business school seeing what they teach there (I took some courses including the undergraduate capstone in the University of Minnesota's management track). I was a bit impressed by Michael Porter's case studies, which always seemed to illustrate some interesting insight he wanted to teach. I always suspected there might be more going on than Porter's narratives highlighted, but they were inspiring stories.

I didn't see a lot of evidence of even that level of thinking, though, in my actual experience working in businesses; either in the securities and insurance industries or in high tech. Lots of ego. Lots of kool-aid drinking. Lots of wishful thinking. Occasionally, a manager or executive was humble enough to try to really understand what customers preferred and what the market was telling them. These people generally had a lot of skin in the game, in small start-ups that would disappear if they failed. They are usually obsessed with understanding what their customers want and developing and articulating a value proposition. I rarely saw a highly-compensated manager or executive second-guess a decision or strategy, once they had publicly committed to it.

If you're sensing that I'm about to segue back to Higher Ed, you're right. As much as fans of academia might object, today's colleges and universities are run like businesses. They are not citizen-owned or even government-owned entities that are operated for the public interest using public expenditures. Even "public" institutions like those in the Minnesota State system are expected to "pay their way". While they may receive substantial funding and grants from government (state, federal), at the end of the year, they are expected to balance their books. Deficits created by spending more than they take in are not covered. No one says, "well, you were doing the right things but enrollment is down, so here's a check to make you whole."

Of course, one could (and I have) argue that BSU has not been doing the right things. This is one of the ironies of our current situation. The university is expected to operate like a business, but we don't really want to put businesspeople in charge of business tasks and decisions. Our executives are sort-of hybrids. Often they are semi-successful academics who have moved into "administration" without really demonstrating they are adequately prepared. Being a somewhat remote, Northern Minnesota campus probably adds to the difficulty, since it is hard to attract candidates and we like to promote from within our community.

But this is not always the case. We ran a national search for our new president. He presented himself (and the announcement of his appointment presented him) as an expert on "Educational Leadership" with a PhD and teaching experience in the subject. The chancellor touted his devotion to diversity, equity, and inclusion and his success as a fund-raiser. These are qualities that could be very helpful to BSU. Unfortunately, in the present crisis these attributes are beginning to seem more like frosting rather than cake. And if there's no cake, there's nothing to frost.

My biggest issue, as I mentioned yesterday, is that it was the three Deans, and not the upper-level administration, that worked all summer on a plan to try to reorganize the university to be more sustainable and maybe even grow. The Deans are actual hybrids, half academic and half administrator. At many schools, they even sometimes teach. The administrators above them are the ones who are supposed to be able to run the business of the university. So far, the only contribution they've made is the plan to cut our way to profitability.

So what happened in the Deans' meeting. It began with a request for the current department chairs to "celebrate" achievements in the spring or summer. Most of them had to do with someone receiving a big grant. Then the Deans named and congratulated all the faculty who had received tenure or promotion. At least one of those people they were congratulating had also been retrenched. Then came a justification for the reorganization (and for the retrenchment that preceded it). The Provost showed that spending in Academic Affairs had increased 15% for instruction. This is a problem. A bigger problem, that went sort-of unaddressed, was that non-instructional Academic Affairs spending increased 35%. Maybe instead of cutting quite so many faculty, we ought to be asking the Provost to reduce his non-instructional spending a bit.

The Deans' proposal was to reduce from three colleges to two (eliminating one Dean) and reorganizing 22 departments into 7 schools. This would save about 90 credits of reassigned time and hundreds of duty days, since department chairs get a six credit release and 28 duty days. And it might create synergies and interesting interdisciplinary opportunities. The Deans also mentioned it would reduce some redundancy, since there is some overlap between the topics different programs teach. I'm not that convinced of that, because some of my courses (Decolonization, Women in History, History of World Religions) are more or less duplicated by courses in programs that won't become part of my school. Of course that's just an example. This doesn't apply to me at all since I won't be there.

When I looked around the room, I saw a lot of set jaws and stony expressions. Even from -- maybe even particularly from -- people who are not getting retrenched. I came away from the meeting thinking resistance (especially passive resistance) might be the thing that kills this plan. If that's the case, there's not much hope. The Deans said at the beginning of their presentation that they're being tasked with reducing their budget for academic year 2025-26 by $4 to $5 million. If things don't change and they default to management's solution of cutting faculty, that's over 40 people. There will be only 141 left after the current retrenchment.

Link to YouTube: